Friday, 4 July 2014

Rolf Harris and a World Lost Forever?

Rolf_HarrisI talked today to a friend who spoke of his bitter disappointment at the news of Rolf Harris’ conviction for unspeakable sex offences against youngsters, and of the earlier news of Stewart Hall’s offences. I know how he feels. As we take in news of Rolf Harris’ spectacular downfall it hardly seems possible, and its difficult to take in what has happened. Why is it that for a generation this has come as, not just a shock, but almost a sense of personal loss? There has been talk of Harris’ naturally avuncular style, his warm smile and friendly demeanour. We are naturally horrified to discover the dark side of this pleasant man. Who would not be at seeing such a Jekyll and Hyde character emerge from behind such a pleasing image? Is it, then, simply the realisation that his image has deceived us as we see the ‘real man’ behind the mask?

We have seen the reputations of a number of popular celebrities come crashing down, from Gary Glitter, through Stewart Hall, to Jimmy Saville, and now Rolf Harris.Others have been arrested, questioned, but never prosecuted. They are all of a type in one respect in that they come from a particular time in our history. Is there something about a certain generation that has produced these characters that have proved too good to be true? Why are, or were, these celebrities so important in the lives of so many people? The great majority would never have met them and certainly could never claim to know them except as they appeared on our television screens.

These days people are so divided into their cultural tribes they surely wouldn’t understand the word ‘community’ as it was understood back then. There was a time in this world when there were but two TV channels, BBC and ITV. Then, in 1964, came a third, BBC2 bringing what was regarded as high culture as a counterpoint to the popular culture of the day. These days no one could command the astronomical viewing figures enjoyed by successful entertainers back then. Just about everyone watched the most popular shows, from the Christmas specials of Morecambe and Wise, drawing audiences of 27 million in 1977, to Coronation Street, regularly pulling in audiences of 18million to 21 million in the 1970s. I could walk down a street where I lived on a Monday, or Wednesday evening at 7.30pm and from just about every house hear Eric Spear’s familiar, haunting theme for Coronation Street.

In work the next day “did you see…last night” inevitably drew  a lot of comment from the majority who could be relied upon to have seen the latest twists and turns in the country’s favourite dramas, comic capers from the country’s best loved entertainers, performances from the country’s most admired pop stars. Back then there still existed a strong sense of community. Although the advent of affordable TV rental plans inevitably drew people indoors where once they shared their own street dramas, when folk came out again they talked about the latest show, or episode from the goggle-box in the corner of the room.

It was into this community that a certain generation of entertainers came. It wasn’t tribal, it was federal. They entered most homes, were seen on most TV’s, and their catchphrases were on most lips – Evenin’ all; Oi’ll give it foive; her indoors; I’m in charge; you dirty old man; can you tell what it is yet? And most families and communities were ‘complicit’ in accepting them and making them what they became. It wasn’t that Rolf Harris was the favourite uncle figure for some, but that he was that for most. These people were not only part of my culture but integral to the culture of a whole country for a whole generation.

The_Rovers_Return,, I suggest is where that real sense of personal loss, that, “he was part of my childhood and growing up,” response comes from. Its that shared experience we all still had as a community, before this multi-channel, techy,tribal madness changed the world forever. My childhood without Rolf Harris is unthinkable, almost like my childhood without my family, my friends, Sunday dinners, Saturday Grandstand, Its a Knockout, Top of the Pops, Coronation Street, Z-Cars, Friday night at the chippie, 99s, Mivi lollipops, Mother’s Pride, Bisto, 2d back on every empty bottle, and the sense that it was our world and we all owned it together.

Perhaps we were over-confident, too innocent, too ready to believe the chimera that stood before us, unwilling to even imagine that Rolf Harris was capable of such things. We like the bad guys to wear black hats and be bad guys. We tell ourselves we are better than them. We like the good guys to wear white hats and be good guys. We tell ourselves these are men after our own hearts and aspire to be like them. We all like to think we know what is what, think that we are on the side of the angels. Now the illusion is shattered, and the ground shifts under us, we search for answers. How could this be? Why were we taken in? what am I supposed to think about this? We don’t want ultimate answers designed to make us wiser, more knowing about our world, that might come too close to home. We want answers that will put us back in that place of white hats and black hats. But that world doesn’t exist, it never did. Jesus makes clear why these things happen:

"What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." (Mark 7:20-23)

G K Chesterton famously remarked, “What is wrong with the world? I am wrong with the world!”

We are all wearing black hats and comparing ourselves favourably with those that are more obviously villainous does not in any measure absolve us of our coveting, slandering, gossiping, envying, lusting, foolishness…

We have a heart problem.

The good news is God has done something about it in sending Jesus to fix our heart problem. When Jesus came on the scene 2,000 years ago he said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

The challenge is that we must recognise how bad the bad news is. All that we see and despise in this world of corruption, the lies, selfishness, violence, sexual immorality, is the product of men’s hearts. Since we are the problem we cannot fix things no matter how we try, and people try hard. We are lost on every level unless someone steps in and saves us from ourselves. That someone is Jesus. Do you really think we can manage without him? We might do what most people do at such times and try to ‘go back,’ tell ourselves these things are anomalies in a world of otherwise great people, our world, our familiar world of black hats and white hats. But this has happened before, will happen again, so how bad does it have to get before we stop lying to ourselves?

As we pan out and look at the wider scene we find it is much worse than the downfall of a family entertainer of fifty years. Andy Coulson, former No.10 press officer, is jailed for heinous and unforgivable crimes to do with systematic phone hacking for the Murdoch press, justice is robbed and lives are blighted. Another of the prime minister’s advisers, Patrick Rock, is on trial for making and distributing pornographic images of children. There is talk about a paedophile ring in Westminster in the 1980s, and a dossier of evidence is said to be missing.

Further afield again we find the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, under investigation for alleged influence-peddling, a teacher in France is inexplicably stabbed by a mother in front of infants, teenagers from both sides of the conflict are being kidnapped and murdered in Jerusalem and Palestine, Christians are being crucified in Syria, and the self-proclaimed “caliph” of Iraq/Syria is threatening to march on Rome for Islam. This world needs a Saviour…

Rome was dubbed “The Eternal City” because of its remarkable longevity, and when it fell to the Visigoths in the fifth century, Romans were left in a deep state of shock. Their world, like ours, seemed to be falling apart. How could this happen? they asked. Some saw it as a punishment for abandoning traditional Roman religions for Christianity. In this atmosphere Augustine of Hippo wrote his seminal work, The City of God Against the Pagans. In it he argued that history was a conflict between the City of Man and the City of God, and it is the latter that will ultimately win. Why mourn for Rome, he argued, when it is the spiritual city of God that is the victor and the dwelling place of all who trust in Christ?

Jesus said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Rolf Harris is responsible for his destructive decisions, Andy Coulson for his, but what about me? Will I recognise at last that the world is the way it is, not because of people like Rolf Harris and Andy Coulson, but because of people with a heart problem – people like me? Am I going to respond to the good news Jesus brings, stop looking back at imagined halcyon days of youth, a more innocent age that never was, and repent, ask him to fix my heart, give me citizenship in his city, his kingdom? He is the light of the world, why on earth would we want to walk in darkness a moment longer?

Friday, 30 May 2014

On Being Disciples: Jesus and a New Humanity

Previously we saw that a disciple follows and emulates the life and teaching of the master. That disciples are called for God’s purpose and that purpose has to do with the establishment and extension of God’s kingdom. Today we consider the miracle of regeneration that achieves this end and the observable and evidential difference this makes in every disciple and in the church, the community of Christian believers.

In a wonderful chapter of John’s gospel in which Jesus comforts his disciples, that in seeing him they are seeing the Father, that in knowing him they know the way to the Father, that the Holy Spirit would come and be their constant companion, “another Counsellor,” another like Jesus who would indwell them and walk with them through this world, in the midst of this intimate discourse Jesus declares:

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater things than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:11-12 ESV)

It is an astonishing promise and we must come to terms with it if we are to be true disciples. Some like to make this verse about miracles, gifts of the Spirit. There is no mention specifically of miracles here and the NIV is unhelpful when it translates ergon as miracles. The word translates “works, toil, labour” not miracles, and refers to all that Jesus had done.

Jesus ‘works’ are much broader than miraculous acts, including all his activities of teaching, praying, evangelism, reaching out to the disenfranchised, sharing the travails of the suffering, deeds of mercy and compassion (Mt.25:34-46) doing his Father’s will (Jn.4:34) This is the evidence that he is sent by God (Jn.5:36; Jn.17:4) and this includes miracles (Jn.17:4)

Jesus is comparing his limited to one short lifetime ministry to the on-going ministry of the church across generations. We see this worked out already at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) He is talking about the whole ministry, of the whole church to the whole world. In this, believers will do greater things by imitating his ministry. But how is a fallen humanity going to achieve this?

The New Adam

What did Jesus do that we should do greater? He walked the earth the new Adam. The New Testament leader Paul explains that because of the disobedience of the first Adam sin and death entered our world. But Christ is the new Adam and brings salvation and life, through faith in him. (Rom.5:12-21)

Jesus deals with this issue in his conversation with Nicodemus in John’s gospel.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." 
Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"
Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘Born-again” isn’t a brand name, isn’t a denominational tag, it isn’t simply a term that identifies those who have decided to follow Jesus and clean up their act. Such people may impress others but they are not Christians in the biblical sense. Don Carson, in his excellent book The God Who Is There describes it like this:

“To talk about the new birth as if it is primarily a metaphor for a specific religious commitment is slightly bizarre. The child about to be born does not make a commitment to come out of his mother’s womb. As far as I know, it is the other doing all the work and pushing the little tyke out. The source of new birth comes from the parents. New birth language is strangely chosen if it is primarily referring to the commitment of the one so born.” (The God Who is There, D. Carson, Baker Books, 2010)

As Carson goes on to point out, it is not a question of whether Jesus was to bring the kingdom, but of whether we qualify to enter it. Any honest person will admit, given the lives we live, the compromises we make, the bargains we strike with circumstances no one qualifies, and all the talk in the world about wiping the slate clean doesn’t cut it, doesn’t deal with reality. We’ve gone wrong and we can’t go back.

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “"Ah, for a man to arise in me, That the man I am may no longer be.”

But there is no such man, is there? Nicodemus cannot see how there could be but Jesus insists there must be.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

…otherwise we can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God.

To be “born of water and the Spirit” is to be born again. Jesus chides Nicodemus for not understanding this and, as a scholar, a teacher of Israel, he should have understood Jesus’ teaching as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Ezekiel:

“I will give you an new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statures and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ez.36:26-27)

This is an act of God! “I will give you a new heart…a new spirit…I will put my Spirit within you, and [I will] cause you to walk in my statutes…”

To be born again is to be regenerated, transformed, made that man Tennyson writes about. Such a man, or woman, is distinguishable from unbelievers by a changed life and lifestyle. We must walk in this world as new creatures born again into God's family, descendants of the new Adam, a new human race. We are to be a peculiar people, with new hearts and spirits, holy and righteous before our God, as the first Adam was to be.

A New Humanity

It is as this new people of God that we are to love God, our neighbour, each other and go out telling the good news of what Christ has done and what God is doing in the world, and make disciples. Evangelism and discipleship aren't optional extras in the life of a Christian but integral to being a disciple.

Jesus promised, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth...” (John 14:15-17)

Another Helper means, literally, another of the same kind, so having the Spirit in your life is like having Jesus alongside you as a discipler. This is how it is achieved. What is achieved?

In that day [when you see me] you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.” John 14:20

That sounds like the way it was at the beginning, doesn't it? Unity within the godhead and unity between the godhead and creation? What does it look like when we are doing it? Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, gives us a start when he writes:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col.3:1-4)

Having died to ourselves and been raised with Christ, we are now citizens of another kingdom altogether, the kingdom of God. Our new hearts and minds will be set on the progress, the service of that kingdom and in this way they become capable of loving with all our hearts, souls, mind and strength, because they are heavenly hearts, heavenly minds.

The Master

What do we see when we set our hearts and minds on things above? We see Christ sitting on the right hand of God. We see the One to whom we are apprenticed:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col.1:15-19)

Take a breath for a moment, take another look at that powerful description of Jesus and consider this: you did not chose him, he chose you. Astonishing, isn't it? So now we have our eyes on him we need never, dare not take them off him again because he is the way (Jn.14:16) and he is the light (Jn.1:1-4) Jesus is the truth lived out and demonstrated for the world to see and we are the living evidence that this is so.

The Disciple

The original disciples spent a lot of time with Jesus and eventually were also sent to live out the truth among the people the way Jesus did, to do greater things. So the way to be a disciple is to have our eyes on Jesus and follow him, like an apprentice following and copying the master strokes of the craftsman and live as children of the light in a darkened world. Paul describes this way of learning by copying in this passage:

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” (1 Thess.1:5-7)

Did you get that? You know you have been chosen by God when your faith is worked out in power and conviction and the indwelling Spirit. If you are a disciple you will imitate the mature lives of others and of the Lord and you will , in turn, become an example to others. Furthermore, this life of fixing our eyes on Jesus, imitating him and the good examples of others brings us peace. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philip.4:9)

Disciples of Jesus spend time with Jesus and encourage one another in the things of the kingdom (Acts 2:42-47) Discipleship is not a solitary enterprise but is practised in community. That is why we need to learn to love one another. We are going to spend eternity together and we will spend it in the kingdom of God so we had better learn to love. The sooner we set our hearts and minds there the better prepared we will be for his coming and for that time when nothing will ever again get in the way of our knowing and worshipping him, knowing the kingdom of God among us.

The miracle of the gospel is not that God brings order to a disordered society but that God creates anew a society of saved people, disciples, out of the confusion of the lost. Who wouldn't want to be a disciple in such an enterprise, to such a Saviour?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

On Being Disciples: Jesus and Kingdom

In my last post, Being Disciples: Jesus and Me?, we learned that a disciple is defined as much by the company he keeps as the ideas he embraces.  That learning, for a disciple, includes practice as well as theory. That Jesus chose us for his purposes and the ‘Jesus and me’ tone that pervades the church is misleading, damaging, and wrong. If Jesus didn’t come to be my life coach - and he didn’t - then why did he come?

The Kingdom

The public ministry of Jesus begins with the clear and unequivocal message, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk.1:15 NIV)

In another place Jesus was asked about the kingdom of God, and replied, “The kingdom of God is among you...” (Luke 17:21 ESV) Some translations (NIV, NCV, KJV) have, “The kingdom of God is within you.”  But this doesn't make sense in the context, i.e. he is speaking to the Pharisees. The ESV and the NASB translate correctly, “the kingdom of God is among you,” in your midst, within your reach, right here where the king is.

The kingdom of God is the central theme of Jesus’ teaching, and his whole person and ministry can only be understood in terms of the kingdom.

Jesus set himself up a rival authority to the Jewish Law. For example, in Mark 2:23-28 when his disciples were criticised for plucking and eating corn on the Sabbath Jesus defended himself by giving the example of King David (1 Sam.212:1-6). The point, however, is not that his disciples were doing what David’s men did, but that the Messianic king that David’s reign foreshadowed was here among them. If David could set himself above the Law how much more could Jesus?

When quizzed about divorce in Mark 10:2-12  Jesus didn’t argue the finer points of the Law but appealed to God’s original intention in the Creation narrative, that marriage was the union of one man and one woman for a lifetime. Jesus made it clear that his priority was the renewal of creation according to God’s original purposes.

This was the day so many had longed to see but that was now here (Mt.13:16-17; Lk.10:23) and it is marked by Jesus’ exercising kingdom authority over sickness, death and evil spirits. Peter declares that his “healing of all who were under the power of the devil” was a sign that God was with Jesus (Acts 10:38)

Jesus, answering the disciples of John the Baptist, declared that the miracles and the preaching of the kingdom are living proclamations that the long-awaited king has come (Lk.7:22)

A kingdom is where a king rules and a member of that kingdom lives by the laws and principles of that kingdom to serve the king's purposes. By extension, the kingdom of God is wherever God rules and reigns and, if he rules and reigns in and among us then that is where the kingdom is. If we are Christians then the kingdom of God is among us and the king has chosen us for his purposes. So, if we are chosen disciples for his purpose, what is his purpose?

Church as Community

When God made mankind in the beginning, “...he blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and...rule...” Genesis 1:28 gives us a picture of God's plan from the beginning. It speaks of community, growth and stewardship.

Later, in Gen. 2:24 we read, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife...” so we learn of family, father, mother, children, wife, husband. Earlier in Gen.2:1 we are told that creation was completed in and by the establishment of this community in correct relationship. It is a simple arrangement with God as Creator, mankind as his steward, charged with caring for the world as we grow and establish community and as God rules and walks among us (Gen.2:8)

Genesis 3:4-5 tells us how this all began to fail when mankind chose to change the order of things and make themselves god of their own lives. We read:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable in gaining wisdom, she took it and ate.” You see, the serpent had promised that by eating the fruit mankind would, “be like God, knowing good and evil.”

To “know good and evil” in these verses doesn't mean a fall from na├»ve innocence, as though they didn’t know right from wrong until they did wrong. That would be perverse and unjust. Rather, it is a conscious decision to ignore God's command and determine what is good and evil for themselves. To “be like God” and judge good and evil; “I know what God says, but I think…”

God knows good and evil as an omniscient being, knowing everything; man's knowledge is finite, a subset of God's knowledge. To set ourselves up as judge from such a position is fatal. We are living with the consequences to this day but we are so used to me being the measure of all things we don't notice.

In the 17th century the French philosopher Rene Descartes tried to find a fundamental statement, an irreducible truth with which everyone, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Secularist, could agree. He came up with, “I think, therefore I am.” Can you see why a Christian can't agree with that statement? “I think, therefore I am.” This is the original sin, making me the measure of all things. A disciple of Jesus doesn't begin with, “I think...” or, “I feel...” A disciple of Jesus understands, God is, therefore I am. God knows everything and is in the perfect place to be the judge and measure of all things; that is how it was meant to be.

God’s Plan

Genesis 12 tells us that God began to put this right by calling a man named Abram out of the rebellious world and into a relationship with God. “The LORD said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to a land I will show you. I will make you a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing...and all the people on the earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

In effect, this was a family for God again. Hold onto that thought.

In Exodus we read of how that family, now grown to great size, indeed a nation as God had promised, is called out of slavery in Egypt and led by Moses to a land God has prepared for them. In effect, this is a people, a community for God, and God made plain his purposes,

“You yourselves have seen what I did in Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles wings and brought you to myself...Although the whole earth is mine, you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-6) In other words a kingdom for God.

Through Moses God gives them the commandments, effectively saying, “This is how a called-out people of God live in relation to God and to each other.” You see, the choosing of Abraham begins with God. The calling out of Israel from Egypt begins with God. Abraham was the father of nations because of God. Israel were a people because God made them a people. As in the Creation, God is the prime mover here.

In the rest of the Old Testament story we see these people of God rebelling and then returning to him. God sent prophets to warn them, guide them, speak to them for God. But God had promised Abraham, long before, that through him and his people all the kingdoms of the earth would be blessed, through his seed (Gen.12:7)

This promise begins to be fulfilled in the gospels as Jesus, the seed of Abraham, arrives on the scene. Paul explains it this way in his letter to the Galatians:

“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but, ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” (Gal.3:15-16)

That one person, Christ, declared he had come, “to preach good news to the proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the Lord's favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Those held captive to sin, to me-centredness, because of man's rebellion in the beginning are to be freed. He died for your sins and mine so that, through faith in him “we” might be saved. You see, though we are saved individually, we are saved into community, family, the family of God; this is the church.

Disciples go where Jesus tells them, see Jesus at work in the world and worship him, struggle and doubt but trust Jesus, not letting doubts stop them; disciples are a work in progress, working in partnership, being discipled and discipling others. All to the end that God's purposes in making us disciples are fulfilled in the extension of his kingdom rule in this world.

That work goes on daily, but secretly, in people’s hearts and minds. Just like a seed growing in secret, whether we sleep or get up, (Mk.4:26-29) so the kingdom extends its borders until that last day when all will recognise his kingly rule (Philip. 2:9-11) Just like a mustard seed that seems so small and insignificant, the kingdom will grow to great size unobserved except by those working for the good of the kingdom.

Similarly, just as the growth of a seed to a great tree is elemental, something with which man has nothing to do, so the kingdom grows by the power of God and we will look at that. Some Christians have only a vague idea of the purposes of God beyond our being saved by grace and looking forward to a heavenly home prepared for us by Jesus. But our place in God’s plan is so much more and next time I will look at Jesus and the new humanity.


1. On being Disciples: Jesus and Me?

Friday, 23 May 2014

On Being Disciples: Jesus and Me?

The New Penguin Dictionary (an excellent dictionary I heartily recommend) defines disciple as, ‘a person who learns from, and is much in the company of, a teacher or instructor…’ It goes on to say, ‘any of the followers of Christ during his lifetime…’

The key for our purpose is, ‘much in the company of.’ A disciple is defined as much by the company he keeps as the ideas he embraces. Furthermore, disciples don’t just agree with a set of ideas from their favourite teacher, they emulate that teacher, putting into practice all they see of that teacher’s life. Clearly, learning, for a disciple, includes practice as well as theory.

This is illustrated by the example of the pupils in the music school of the Temple in the Old Testament, “The number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to the LORD, all who were skilful, was 288. And they cast lots for their duties, small and great, teacher and pupil alike.” (1 Chron.25:7-8, ESV)

Another notable Old Testament example is that of Isaiah who, recognising that his message had been rejected by his people, determined to entrust it to a band of followers:

“Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob. I will put my trust in him.” (Is.8:16-17)

The parallel between Isaiah’s disciples and the disciples of Jesus is striking. Disciples are entrusted with the prophetic truth of God and are responsible for its preservation, proclamation and application.

Some other notable biblical disciples are, Joshua who was discipled by Moses; Elisha who learned his craft from Elijah; Timothy who learned from Paul. Then, of course, there were the disciples of John the Baptist.

Disciples are not confined to the Bible. Discipleship was commonplace in the ancient world, for example,  Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had their followers. Disciples chose who they would follow so if you were drawn to a materialist philosophy you might follow an Epicurean teacher. If you were searching for a philosophy that taught clear judgement and inner calm you might seek out a Stoic teacher.

Jesus and Me?

In this respect what made Jesus stand out was his statement:

You did not chose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit...” (Jn.15:16)

What we make of this statement, typically, is that he chose me, personally, as though it is all about me. We use phrases like, my personal Saviour. We sing songs with words like, My Jesus, my Saviour. There is an unhealthy preoccupation with personal pronouns as we imagine Jesus somehow ‘coming through for me.’ There is a ‘Jesus and me’ tone pervading much of Christian thinking today.

We are familiar with the thought expressed as“God has a plan for your life.” We sometimes hear people quote Jeremiah, “’I know the plans I have for you,’declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jer.29:11)

Well, here goes a sacred cow to slaughter. God doesn't have a plan for your life. Too many Christians hang on to this misunderstood promise in the way children wait for Santa on Christmas eve. Too many name-it-and-claim-it frauds build up false and worldly hopes in naive people on the basis of such thinking. But God doesn’t have a plan for your life. Rather, God has a plan and your life fits into it for his purposes.

Sometimes God’s  plan will require something very specific for you, concerning your career, your calling, your life-partner, even where you live. Missionaries of all kinds are called to spread the gospel further afield over many years of sacrifice and service; church leaders are called to work locally, giving up worldly ambitions to serve the church in key roles; volunteers are called to serve in various ways in the church and community.

However, God doesn't always have a specific plan but simply wants you to be obedient. If you marry you should marry well, meaning marrying a Christian, you should work hard, raise a family, and do all things to the glory of God and, by the way, sometimes he uses you in a particular way. Otherwise simply live for him wisely and faithfully. In other words, since Jesus chose us for his purposes it is not about me and my bespoke life plan, but about Jesus and my faithfulness and obedience to his plan.

Next time I will look at what is God’s plan and how we fit into it.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Steve Chalke, Oasis Trust, and the EA


Oasis Trust was founded in 1985 by Steve Chalke as a charity to help homeless young people. It has since become an international ministry covering areas like housing, education, healthcare, youth work and training. Both the trust and its founder have enjoyed a high profile and a good reputation among those who consider practical help and sacrificial service as essential to being Jesus in our communities. Would that it had stayed like that.

Now we read that the trust and the Evangelical Alliance (EA), after protracted and difficult discussions, are to part company. Oasis has had its membership of the EA revoked. The issue, inevitably, is that of same-sex marriage (isn’t everything these days?) but the problem goes back much further.steve-chalkes-change-of-heart-has-shocked-the-evangelical-community

Steve Chalke has a history of rejecting Christian teachings that have been fundamental to the faith since time immemorial. He has denied the trustworthiness of the Bible, and rejected the biblical doctrine of penal substitution, that Christ died for our sins, calling it “cosmic child abuse.” Now he has said that same-sex marriage is acceptable, despite clear biblical teaching to the contrary (but then if you don’t trust the Bible…)

How does this sort of thing happen? One of the challenges Christians face, especially for full-time church staff, is the danger of spending all your time in the Christian community and losing touch with the world around us. I suggest Steve Chalke’s problem has been the reverse, i.e. he has spent so much time with the world, its problems and challenges, that he has lost touch with God and His Word. He has been pragmatic instead of faithful, accepting the world’s solutions to the issues with which Oasis Trust deals.

Inevitably, it seems, rejection of God’s Word in this issue starts with, “but I have a friend who is gay and their alright…” Well, I have a Lord who has something to say about that and I and many others, including many struggling with same-sex attraction, choose to obey him.

Bible falling apartWhat needs to be understood is that, while most people look at the world and ask themselves, "What do I think about this?" an Evangelical Christian believer looks at the world and asks, "What does God think about this?" If God’s thoughts don’t agree with mine, then it is for me to change. I expect to spend eternity with him so I may as well get that straight now.

The Bible is very clear on the issue of same-sex marriage. If, as Christians, we cannot know the mind of God through the Word of God, then we may as well all pack up and go home. That, of course, is what many want us to do.

To the world, this stubborn insistence on actually believing and conforming your life to the Bible might seem bizarre. “I am my own special creation,” they sing. What is bizarre, however, is claiming, as Chalke does, to be an Evangelical (believing in the evangel, the redemption message of the Bible) yet rejecting the Bible’s core values and teachings.

Should we be saddened by this development? Of course we should; no one wants to see people walk away from core gospel truths. Should we be surprised about this? Absolutely not! The Bible declares:

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.(2 Tim.3:1-5)

Just last night, in a Bible study, I heard someone say that “No, Lord!” is a contradiction in terms. They are right! Make no mistake, disciples of Jesus have to choose between the Lord and the world. Better to make that choice once and prove loyal than get up each morning and decide who will get your loyalty today, or”…don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God?” (Js:4:4)

He is either Lord of all, or he isn’t Lord at all. His Word is either entirely trustworthy, or it is not to be trusted at all because it is the words of men.

Christians understand that this is God’s world, he made it for his own purposes, sent his Son to die for its redemption, and that same Redeemer will return to claim it for himself, a world created anew, “born again,” and preserved for eternity to his glory. That is the reality every Christian knows and Steve Chalke has joined the band of people determined to redefine that reality.

I leave the last word to George Weigel writing in the National Review on the 2011 decision to legalise same-sex marriage in New York.

“Marriage, as both religious and secular thinkers have acknowledged for millennia, is a social institution that is older than the state and that precedes the state. The task of a just state is to recognize and support this older, prior social institution; it is not to attempt its redefinition. To do the latter involves indulging the totalitarian temptation that lurks within all modern states: the temptation to remanufacture reality. The American civil-rights movement was a call to recognize moral reality; the call for gay marriage is a call to reinvent reality to fit an agenda of personal willfulness.”

Friday, 18 April 2014

Crown of Thorns

Crown of Thorns

We shrink at every swing of the hammer,

We cry with every thrust of the nail.

These soldiers know their business of torture,

The panic rises it never fails.

The crosses rise and fall with a judder,

Into the holes filled with blood and rain.

Come crashing down, making me shudder.

My heart is bursting now with the pain.


Crown of thorns, crown of thorns,

They made me their king with a crown of thorns

Crown of thorns, crown of thorns,

They made me their king with a crown of thorns


The joker on my left started laughing.

Hysteria had a hold on his soul.

“If you’re the king get us out of this place,

‘cause brother right now we’re in a hole.”

While on my right a voice started crying,

“You fool; we’re getting what we deserve.

This man’s done nothing, Lord please remember

Me in your kingdom, I’m ready to serve.”


Crown of thorns, crown of thorns,

They made me their king with a crown of thorns

Crown of thorns, crown of thorns,

They made me their king with a crown of thorns


The men drew lots to see who inherits

My worldly goods though they were so few.

If they’d looked up they’d see heaven waiting,

But they looked down at the dice they threw.


Crown of thorns, crown of thorns,

They made me their king with a crown of thorns

Crown of thorns, crown of thorns,

They made me their king with a crown of thorns


At noonday midnight fell like a judgement,

Heaven’s thunder roared and punishment fell.

“My God, my God how could you forsake me?

And leave me here in this living hell.”


Crown of thorns, crown of thorns,

You  made me their king with a crown of thorns

Crown of thorns, crown of thorns,

You made me their king with a crown of thorns


It wasn’t soldiers hung me on this tree.

It wasn’t priests condemned me to death.

It wasn’t nails that held me here bleeding.

For love of you I gave my last breath.


Crown of thorns, crown of thorns,

You made me your king with a crown of thorns

Crown of thorns, crown of thorns,

You made me your king with a crown of thorns

Copyright Michael Thomas 2008

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Easter Changes Everything

There is a decidedly worldly approach to Easter that even those who are comfortable with Easter eggs, Easter Bunnies, and the seasonal food and drink blow-out it has become find they regret. “Its too commercial,” people tell me, demonstrating at some level an emotional insight they can’t explain to themselves that the season might have a true meaning. They know somehow all this is wrong and yet, what does it look like when its right?

That is when some might find their way to a church come Good Friday, or Easter Sunday, searching for they know not what. There is simply a restlessness to have things other than the way they are. As is so often the case, they romanticise the different, the unfamiliar, convincing themselves that there is some formula to be found that makes everything good again. But they soon find that the church is less than perfect, some might say it is dysfunctional. Christians have their problems and struggle, themselves, with an imperfect faith.

Where is the religious formula that is meant to give everything meaning, to make a positive difference in my life? Other religions teach about peace and transcendence, ritual, form, and duty. mystical practices and contemplative disciplines. What about the Sermon on the Mount, or the Ten Commandments? Aren’t they a sort of formula, a pattern for the good life? Well, sort of…

You see, when a member of this vast dysfunctional family, the human race looks admiringly at the moral and ethical laws of the Christian faith he may well yearn to live by the Christian code, but he will immediately discover a problem; he can’t do it.

Have you ever noticed that no sooner is a law created than someone wants to break it? Put a hole in a fence and hang a sign saying, “Don’t Look in Here,” and what do people do? Put up a sign, “Wet Paint, Do Not Touch,” and what do people do? Erect a “No Parking” sign and what will people do?

Paul sums up the dilemma very well:

“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Ro.7:20-24)

We see a code to live by and find it attractive (delight in the law of God in our inner being) but then find we, for some reason, compromise (see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind) This is the conflict everyone faces in their life. A frustrated Paul confesses, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”

No wonder he cries in frustration, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

So what is happening? Some religious people of Jesus’ day thought following a code of ritual cleanliness would put them right with God. Jesus said:

“What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."  (Mk.7:20-23)

We all have a heart problem. So we can yearn to be different, agree emotionally with the highest standards, want to do right, but “another law” in us fights against this impulse to good, making us do the opposite of what we intended. This is what the Bible calls sin. James describes sin’s progress in our lives:

“Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.” (Js.1:14-16)

We have a heart problem and Easter is the story of how God stepped in, fixed the problem of the human heart, and changed everything.

The Bible puts it like this:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates  his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Ro.5:6-8)

Good Friday is when we remember that Jesus died for our sins, took the punishment we deserved, so that we could have our hearts changed, from hearts that issue in sin and rebellion to hearts that rejoice in righteousness and obedience.

The Christian’s life is one of learning to walk in the good of what God has done in Christ for sinners who turn to him in faith. But nothing of this is possible until our hearts are changed. That is why its important to know that Easter changes everything.

So the only question is, are you wise, or otherwise?